The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015, better known as the Land Bill, recently presented in the Parliament has once again brought to the forefront the divided opinion prevailing amongst our policy makers and commoners alike since time immemorial. The proponents of the bill, more specifically of the amendments it seeks to bring, glorify it as a genie for farmers. Its opponents personify it as an evil which must be decimated in the best interests of millions of those who feed us. We continue to swing like a pendulum between our modern day positioning as a global hotspot for capitalism and our long held beliefs in socialism which has always influenced us to classify ourselves as a mixed one. But somewhere lost in between these two extreme battle for one-upmanship is the economic viability or otherwise of this impending piece of legislation that intends, if by words, to usher in an era of unforeseen transition for the nation as a whole.
Without venturing into the politics of this, I believe we need to independently assess the major clauses that have led to the hullabaloo as it exists today. The main points that has led to resistance can be summarized as below:
The Amendment seeks to do away with the requirement for prior consent of existing landowners for certain specified categories of projects such as defence production, industrial corridors, irrigation, power and rural infrastructure, irrespective of their mode of ownership, i.e. private or public or PPP. Acquiring prior consent and the methodology for the same has always been a grey area which has led to severe unrest in several parts of the country. Moreover, with the growing stress on privatization and a broad consensus about the role of government to be henceforth aligned towards governance rather than on business, this seems to be a mere confirmation of this long stated objective. The importance of these sectors, primarily rural infrastructure development, can hardly be overstated, more so in the present scenario of urban areas being clogged to the core. The long delays associated with acquiring consent from landowners have been a major roadblock in encouraging private sector to take up such projects. The amendment is likely to give a much needed fillip to this sector thereby boosting rural economy.
The Amendment also seeks to exclude the above stated projects from the requirement of Social Impact Assessment. This has raised several eyebrows as to what is the real intent behind such a move. Prime facie it does seem as a move too liberal. Human well being is the crux of economic development andgrowth needs to be judiciously managed with sustainability. Hence, to assess the impact to be caused by a development project is quintessential. However, neither can we ignore the strategic importance associated with the sectors to be provided this exemption. Combine with it our experience of how in the recent past environmental clearances have led to an infinite delay in a plethora of projects, leaving aside the mud-slinging associated with it, it does come about as a pragmatic move essential to improve sentiment among the investor community. “Today’s pain is tomorrow’s gain” - goes a saying which has for long been a motto of infrastructure projects and to an extent symbolize the inordinate delays associated with such projects In our country. The studies of Social Impact Assessment for projects are likely to be a time consuming affair which will discourage private sector from participating in such projects. Further, the country still lacks the standardized procedures for carrying out such studies in an exhaustive manner. Hence, the exclusion of such sectors will definitely make investments in these areas attractive. However, I feel that the Government must instill adequate safeguards so as to ensure that no gross injustice is done to any section of the society.
Finally comes the most critical area: The Amendment permits acquisition of irrigated and multi cropped land for the categories of projects stated above. This is undoubtedly a double edged sword. The past few years has made us a witness to sky rocketing inflation. The most crucial role in it is played by the food prices. As such, any acquisition of fertile land for industrial and infrastructure purposes is certain to evoke a hostile response. And it isn’t without valid reason. An empty stomach can never enjoy the beauty of a highway, no matter how picturesque it is. Nevertheless, we also cannot ignore the fact that at many points of time these are areas which provide the highest degree of financial viability to enterprises executing such projects. The share of agriculture as a part of our GDP has shown a consistent decline in the last decade with being just nearly 14% in 2013-14. Thus, is it that the impetus should be on area under agriculture or is it that time has come for us to revolutionize our thought process. Productivity needs to be the buzzword in agriculture sector in the current scenario. Our level of farm mechanization hovers around 25% as compared to 90% in developed nations. We need to improve our technology and processes to extract the most from our agricultural investment. We need to weed out inefficiencies deep rooted in our agriculture methods to bring about a real change in the situation of farmers and establishing food security. While usage of such fertile land for other purposes should be strongly controlled, considering the major role rural infrastructure can play in stabilizing our economy and uplifting our rural economy, we can consider the use of such land to an extent for such projects.
While there are other clauses in the proposed Bill that has raised objections from different quarters the above are those that have led to major discontentment. However, as in all pieces of legislation, this too has its virtues and vices. We stand at a major cross point at this stage. On one hand is the agriculture farmer is undoubtedly left in a state of uncertainty, though the repercussions will only be evident in the time to come. On the other hand is the harsh reality staring at us. How long can a nation of 1.2 billion people face the globalised world with an approach more than 120 years old? To what extent can we sustain schemes like NREGA to support rural employment and serve as a veil to disguised unemployment that persists across the rural economy? With a share of less than 1% in India’s GDP agriculture still supports the livelihood of more than half of Indian population Has the time come to remove the garb of shortage of fertile land over the layers of inefficiency that exists in agricultural productivity? Is it viable to push strategic sectors such as defence and power into the uneven path of infinite clearances and theoretical safeguards?
There are no one point answers to above. However, its time we take a stride and move towards creating a new future for ourselves. As members of the professional fraternity, I feel it is our responsibility to foster debate on such topics, not merely to identify problems but to find out a solution which is the most balanced one. Only then can we play our role in converting India into a global superpower.